While we were editing and putting together the book, there were a few sections which didn’t make it into the final manuscript. Here’s one of my favourites, about John 8 and the story of the woman taken in adultery.
In the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8, we again see two attempts to bring shame on others.
On the one hand, the Jewish leaders set a trap for Jesus. They bring him what they believe is an impossible question. Jesus is sitting in the Temple courts; he is in the center of the Jewish religious system. But the occupying Roman government knew that the Temple, especially on feast days, was also where the anti-Roman riots started, and so it was constantly guarded by a garrison of soldiers. According to the historian Josephus, “a Roman legion went several ways among the cloisters, with their arms, on the Jewish festivals, in order to watch the people, that they might not there attempt to make any innovations.” The Temple courts were the place where Jewish religious authority and Roman legal authority met, head-on.
And so it was here that the religious leaders asked Jesus a question: We found this woman breaking the Jewish law; shall we impose the Jewish penalty? To say “yes” would swiftly bring Jesus to the attention of the Roman authorities for inciting vigilante justice. (See John 18:31) To say “no” would discredit Jesus as a Jewish prophet and upholder of the Law. Their trick question is a clear attempt to embarrass and humiliate him in the most public way.
But in doing this, they bring a woman into the Temple courts, publicly accuse her of adultery, and force her to stand before everyone. Whether or not the charge of adultery is true is not at all clear; it’s kind of hard to find just one person in the act of adultery, and (despite what the Pharisees say) the Law requires that both partners be put to death. So where’s the man? Well, either there was no man, or the Pharisees had no qualms about treating a woman as a pawn in their game in order to humiliate Jesus. By isolating and exposing her before the crowd, the teachers of the Law deliberately inflict serious reputational damage upon this woman. “Slut-shaming”, even then, was something only done to women; men seem to get judged by different standards.
But to Jesus, this was a person in need of God’s salvation and love. Jesus must get himself out of an impossible situation, and at the same time deal with her loss of dignity and dehumanization. How does he thread the needle?
As Kenneth Bailey explains,1 Jesus turns the question back onto the crowd. The Pharisees have isolated and exposed a woman; now he challenges them to isolate and expose themselves. Who is going to be the first person to take action – and responsibility? Who is going to stand out from the crowd and declare themselves sinless and fit to mete out punishment? “In the Middle East, in such circumstances, people naturally turn to the eldest person present. The crowd turns to see if that elder has the courage to respond to Jesus’ challenge. From the oldest to the youngest his opponents withdraw, humiliated.” They will be back, however, for another round later, and as we know, they will eventually bring Jesus to Roman justice and to death.
But for now both he and the woman are spared. The woman’s shame has been transferred onto the Pharisees, and the crowd’s anger and bloodlust has been transferred onto Jesus. Once again, he is our substitute for shame.
1: Kenneth Bailey, 2008. Jesus through Middle-Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p.235.